Julie Cohen’s “Every Body” is unashamedly didactic. It offers a lesson in the basics of intersex biology while profiling three intersex people, River Gallo, Alicia Roth Weigel and Sean Saifa Wall. They’re carefully selected for different kinds of diversity: River is Latinx and uses they/them pronouns, Wall is Black and goes by he/him, and Weigel is white and identifies as she/they. Cohen worked for NBC News Studios in 2018, and “Every Body” sprung out of her job browsing their archives for footage that could be turned into full-length documentaries. It’s the work of a well-intentioned outsider, and it may do some good, but one wonders how Gallo, Weigel and Wall would represent themselves if they were the ones behind the camera.
In fact, its strongest section comes near the end, when it depicts Gallo as an artist and Weigel and Wall as activists rather than just interviewing them. Weigel, who has worked as a political consultant, meets with politicians in Austin to argue against forced surgery on intersex children. After struggling to establish themselves as an actor, Gallo lands a role in a production of “King Lear” starring Joe Morton. Wall travels to Germany to see an exhibit of photos for which he has posed nude. Earlier, “Every Body” criticizes the objectification of medical photography. Although Wall didn’t shoot the pictures himself, their exhibit allows him control over images of his body.
Contrasting with the many dehumanizing portrayals of trans people in American media, intersex people suffer from a lack of awareness about the very existence of intersex people. (“Every Body” includes a clip of Tucker Carlson saying “intersex, whatever that is.”) The film’s subjects complain about invisibility rather than stereotyping. (Still, it shows an ad for the TV show “American Horror Story: Freak Show,” in which a “hermaphrodite” displays their three breasts.) Looking back, almost all the media I see about intersex people has come in the form of sensationalized medical reality shows. The “I” in “LGBTQIA” stands for intersex, but although they make up almost two percent of the American population, they’re rarely seen as a community.
“Every Body” brings home a killing irony. These days, transphobia is carried out in the name of supposedly protecting children. The idea that children and teenagers can honestly identify as trans (or queer in any manner) and get the health care they deserve is anathema to conservatives. You can get published by concern trolling about puberty blockers and engaging in polite “Just Asking Questions” transphobia. Yet the very surgeries and hormone treatments that transphobes claim to be saving children from are being conducted on kids who have not consented to them and are having the gender binary medically forced on them by their parents and doctors. The way this behavior mirrors TERF rhetoric shows transphobes’ hypocrisy.
“Every Body” makes some very important points and shines a light on a group of marginalized people, but it’s a piece of lazy filmmaking. The soundtrack alternates between moody, manipulative piano instrumentals and mediocre covers of pop songs like “Be My Baby,” “Call Me Maybe,” “Pretty Woman,” and “Born to Run.” Sometimes, these songs are used ironically or in order to make a point. Gallo says they identify with Bruce Springsteen since they too grew up in New Jersey. But their emotional power is sapped; a woman performing “Stand By Me” sleepily on guitar doesn’t carry the same impact on images of activism that Ben E. King’s beautiful original would.
Even more troublingly, “Every Body” plays like it began with a 1999 “Dateline” program on David Reimer, who was a boy forced to live as a girl after his penis was severed in a botched surgery, and developed from there. Cohen films Wall, Gallo and Weigel watching the TV show and reacting, but the scene seems staged. Dr. John Money, who was responsible for Reimer’s surgery, played an important role in popularizing the idea of such medical treatment, but the film interpolates unbroken minutes of the TV show. It does move forward to the present, where hospitals and doctors continue to perform surgery on intersex children’s genitalia, but 92 minutes is too short to fully explain the historical context of such treatment and its continuity, while also doing justice to the lives of Wall, Gallo and Weigel. Even the closing credits, in which the trio dance outside and the film’s major crew members show their faces and reveal their pronouns, seem half-hearted. The direction and editing just aren’t capable of bringing out the intersex joy the scene aims for, nor does it reveal anything about Cohen and her co-workers as people. Although “Every Body” will play movie theaters, it would look much better as streaming fodder. It could’ve been so much more.
“Every Body” | Directed by Julie Cohen | Focus Features | Opens June 30th at AMC Empire 25 and AMC Lincoln Center